Indonesia: Punk music and Shari’a law

12 June 2015


Punks face the tightening grip of Shari’a law in north Sumatra. This is documented in ‘Street Punk! Banda Aceh’ – a film about a punk community that refuses to die. Freemuse asked the film’s production team, director Maria Bakkalapulo and producer Niall Macaulay to tell about the struggle.

By Maria Bakkalapulo and Niall Macaulay

Punk’s freedom of expression and resistance to injustice clashes worldwide with political and religious dogma. Under the tightening grip of Shari’a law in north Sumatra’s Aceh province, punks causing minor transgressions are used as scapegoats to distract attention from the crippling issue in Indonesia – rampant corruption. Life would be much easier if the punks conformed, but this small community refuses to be destroyed.

Punk first took root in Jakarta in the mid-1990’s — when the music’s rebellious spirit perfectly soundtracked the hostility most young people directed toward then President Suharto’s dictatorial regime. The Exploited, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Discharge – bootleg cassettes of classic punk rock migrated across the whole archipelago through tape sharing. Armed with ukuleles, punks spread their lyrical message on the streets, trains and buses, giving the marginalised masses a voice in a country where the media is heavily slanted and people have little faith in their government. In Banda Aceh, punk rock refuses to die. It means everything to this community, far from where the movement was born, they naturally recognize themselves reflected in its politics and substance. Their desire for freedom from judgement, and to live life on their own terms.

If you want to find a hang out and ‘people watch’ in Aceh’s capital, Banda Aceh, you might head to Peunayong, a city center junction, sit yourself at a hawker stall in a plastic low-riding chair and order some beef sate, washed down with a blended avocado drink. After a while, you’ll get serenaded by small groups of punks strumming their ukuleles, singing songs table-side. Drop them a 10,000 rupiah note – equivalent to US$1 – and you are contributing to probably the only meal they will get that day. This is a normal night where people linger into the wee hours, sip on coffee or fresh fruit juices and smoke endless clove cigarettes.

Alcohol is banned in Aceh, as are public shows of affection between couples, and there is little to entertain, one hears almost no music anywhere, except where a tv might be tuned to a bland soap opera or talent show. Here, one night in November 2013, a fight broke out, and a group of the punks were taken to jail, accused of attacking a man who they said insulted them. Several of the punks were held for months without proof of any crime – their accuser never came to court. Whether guilty or not, they were painted in the local press as lowlifes of society, criminals by default. In Aceh, to be a punk is to be branded a ‘social disease.’



Re-education – Aceh style
Accused of drug possession, beaten, arrested and sent off to prison to be ‘re-educated’ and purged of his punk ways, Yudi now walks a free man outside the prison where he spent months. He says he was sentenced without any proof of crime or warrant. Yudi was quickly confronted by the other inmates. “So, you’re a punk, you reject religion?” Yudi told them that, no, he doesn’t. Yudi prays every day. “It’s only when the inmates began to know me bit by bit that they started to want to mingle more with me. Initially they looked down on us,” Yudi says emotionally. In prison, Yudi suffered more beatings and became depressed. “It was their purpose to ‘re-educate’ us to become better, but better for them is not better for us,” Yudi says with a look of great anguish in his face. “They said, ‘what is this punk lifestyle? Punk is Jewish culture, punk is a western culture.’ But I said ‘I know who I am, I know what I’m doing, and I know all the consequences, so I think we should all mind our own business to better ourselves.’ They said, ‘ah, it’s useless talking to you’.”

In the story, “The Punks of the Tsunami Museum” Post-disaster Indonesia (see link below) featured in the Autumn 2014 issue of Planet:The Welsh Internationalist, Yudi wrote these words while imprisoned:

Law is only a show for the upper class, while for ordinary people, it is terrifying, Why do I think like that? Because everything happens because from Money is, in fact, capable of challenging even Godly powers.This is a place where justice can be bought and engineered by those who regulate the system, Because of this I resist the authoritarian system that exists in this country. Because the policies of the powerful are good for only a small group of people, essentially we can draw the conclusion that ordinary people are the victims of their policies. What is crystal clear here is that justice can be bought with money.

It was Yudi’s friends and especially his girlfriend (her name being withheld for her protection) rallying support and legal help that eventually led to Yudi’s release. Marjaana Jauhola, Academy Research Fellow in Gender Studies at the University of Helsinki, was with Yudi’s girlfriend during this period and was asked to not let her father know about her part in the punk community. Despite Yudi’s girlfriend’s father being an intelligence officer with the army, she hides her relationship with Yudi. But her father surely knew what was going on, especially when “her father persuaded her to apply for the police force which I took as an direct way of telling his daughter to change her life,” describes Jauhola. “She was worried how it would affect her relationship with her boyfriend (Yudi) and the rest of the punk community.”

Aceh is both a fascinating and a tragic place. It is where Islam first came to Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. In 2001, Aceh became the only province in Indonesia authorized to enforce Shari’a, or Islamic law, as part of a “special autonomy” arranged by the central government to appease the Free Aceh Movement (or GAM), separatists seeking independence. Then, of course, that horrible day on December 26, 2004 when a massive undersea earthquake triggered an Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 167,000 people in Aceh alone. In the aftermath of the tsunami, a peace deal finally brought the end to the decades long civil war. In the wake of the deadliest natural disaster on record, the once isolated people of Aceh opened up to outside assistance, while also turning inward to their faith to find answers, paving the way for hard-line Shari’a law to grow in influence. Women must be covered in public, no tight clothing is allowed, or they face embarrassing or serious consequences from the Shari’a police that patrol the city. Unmarried women and men have very restricted contact with each other, the existence of homosexuality is denied.

Caning as a form of punishment is becoming more and more common. The only cinema has been closed down and music is generally censored — only pre-approved concerts are allowed, women and men in the audience are kept separated and music (other than religious music) is rarely heard in public places. Curfews are enforced where women are not allowed out after 11 pm and a pervading sense of abject boredom amongst the people. The regression of Aceh’s society into Shari’a law seems unstoppable, and an ongoing crackdown has driven punks in Aceh further underground.



Museum street punks
Yudi and his friends call themselves the Museum Street Punks, they gather at the Aceh Tsunami Museum, a memorial and evacuation site, one of the only public places that tolerates the punks. The Aceh punks became known worldwide on December 20, 2011 when sixty-four were taken away by the police and their gig, which they had set up to fundraise for orphanages, was ended. They were punished for being punk – subjected to a “re-education” regimen that included having their mohawks shaved, and their clothes burned. They were forced nearly naked into a lake to wash themselves – symbolic of authorities that see them as morally unclean.

Though most of the punks that were arrested were male, there were some females. Declaring yourself a punk if you’re female adds a whole new layer to complexity. “It may first appear that there are none, as they take good care of not being overly visible for non-punk community as that would cause them a lot of unwanted attention, even harassment by the general public, security, or police,” explains Marjaana Jauhola, Academy Research Fellow in Gender Studies at the University of Helsinki who has been spending a great deal of time immersing herself and learning about the punk community in Aceh. “On the surface you’ll meet young women who wear jilbabs covering their hair, long sleeve shirts or coats, long trousers or skirts,”Jauhola continues “yet, underneath this you’ll find tattoos, punk t-shirts, DIY bracelets, dreadlocks, punk styled short hair and so on.” Their punk identity is only revealed to those they trust at gigs and other punk-organized events. Though they take special care to leave the events early, “to secure their ‘honor’ or reputation,” says Jauhola.

To be branded a punk in Aceh is often associated with immoral behavior. To declare yourself a punk to your family is not acceptable if you’re a female. “For most women, hiding their “punk-ness” in the public is also extended to home sphere. There seems to be a degree of distancing oneself from the declared punk identity in order to protect oneself at home: hanging out does not mean I am one and thus, self declarations of being a female punk in front of the parents, or in general, is rare, although some adults have tried cutting the links between the females and the male punk community by not allowing them to hang around in the city, establishing curfews and not allowing the girls to use motorbikes at night time,” Marjaana Jauhola describes. “As the Shari’a policing and raids in Banda Aceh specifically control female clothing and behavior, only few girlfriends would hang out late evenings.”

In Banda Aceh, Mayor Illiza Sa’Aduddin says Shari’a teaches the Acehnese to be better Muslims and is a necessary part of rebuilding Aceh after the tsunami. She is proudly on a ‘personal crusade’ against the punk community and believes their way of of life does not belong in Aceh, while she turns a blind eye to the wholesale devastation of the province’s forests making fortunes for corrupt individuals. Targeted by patrolling Shari’a police, who say they are responding to complaints from locals, Banda Aceh’s punks make a useful political distraction. Muhammad Shyahril is a Shari’a police officer who met up with us when he was off duty at a local coffee shop. He has been been on patrol when punks were arrested and feels it is justified.

“You can see culturally this doesn’t fit in Aceh,” says Shyahril. “The law states that if they disturb the order of society, we have the authority to punish them. The problem arises when they appear in their ragged clothes, the people report to us that there’s a bunch of punks that disturb them, maybe they’re afraid of them, perhaps the punks stole their food or their goods because they are unemployed. They sleep wherever, eat whatever they found, sometimes they don’t eat. They’re dirty, so we receive reports such as these every day and it grows,” concludes Shyahril. Having failed to get their way, the authorities are now attempting to recruit college students and civilians into helping rid the city of punks.



A sense of equality
Caplex turns up for our interview ready to take on the world, head held high, in his studded leather jacket and his black Dr. Marten boots. He is a singer and songwriter, his lyrics unflinchingly taking apart the hypocrisy of Aceh. His boiling anger at the state combined with his sharp mind produces some truly inspiring music. Caplex lost most of his family in the deadly tsunami. Since, the punk community has become his family. “We eat together, earn money together, we enjoy together, there is a sense of equality,” explains Caplex. “We go through suffering together, we struggle together. I myself am friends with the punks not because of material possession, we don’t discriminate between the rich or the poor, anyone can join in the punk community.” It is scenarios like this, when you’ve lost everything and you are constantly being harassed by authorities, where punk has a highly relevant meaning.

Back in Peunayong, the sun sets as the call to prayer echoes far and wide, and all ages gather at the mosque for prayers and to listen to sermons. Sumatra’s dramatic towering clouds glow in the setting sun, the hawkers set up their wares under countless fluorescent lamps, and the cycle starts again. The punks converge in an alley in Peunayong to play music, share ideas, do a bit of DIY artwork, smoke cigarettes, eat fried rice communally. It’s a rare vibrant place to be in this suffocating society. The punks go out in groups to play songs to earn money to eat. Every night is unpredictable, though, and the punks are constantly watched, always under threat.

Under great duress, the punk community tries to survive, keeping their spirit alive with their edgy, raw in-your face music that lashes out at authority and society that tells them their way is wrong. In the song Street Punk by Botol Kosoenk (or Empty Bottle), the punks fight back in song: 

Street punk, street punk. Never give up. Street punk, street punk. Will always move on. / We always take abuse. Entering right and coming out left. What you say is meaningless. Because to us, you are a loser./Street punk, street punk. Never give up. Street punk, street punk. Will always move on. / The hypocrisy is stabbing your own belly. Too many words but unused. Our scream will hit you. To make you aware, and know shame. / Street punk, street punk. Never give up. Street punk, street punk. Will always move on from Street Punk by Botol Kosoenk (or Empty Bottle)

It also doesn’t help that the local media portrays the punks badly. Azriana Manalu is a human rights lawyer with LBH Apik Aceh. “In Aceh there is a bad stigma against punk. So, people hate them, and the media only publishes negative stories about the punks without confirming the truth,” says critically Manalu. “When they understand how to advocate themselves, perhaps they will have the rights to answer. It’s a violation against journalistic ethics, the negative stories were published negatively without being confirmed.”

What do the Aceh punks want? Scooby, one of the punks once at the core of the movement here, puts his opinion “We want freedom, freedom in creating, in expressing ourselves. But the way we Acehnese interact in the community is more difficult, especially because in Aceh the Shari’a law is implemented strictly. We only hope that we can be accepted, that’s enough,” exclaims Scooby. “That we can live in unity with others, after all, we’re also human. We’re the same, it’s only that we have a different way of thinking, different way of living.” In a surprising volte-face, Scooby is no longer punk, and now follows Hizb ut-Tahrir. A pan-Islamic group, banned in a number of countries, it is gaining a stronger presence in the region, and Scooby is willing to help them recruit from the young punks, although so far his efforts seem to be rejected.

There are curious parallels between the anti-state message of punk and such Muslim extremism which also seeks to deconstruct democratic principles, and when democracy is a badly implemented as it is in Aceh, its easy to paint it as a deceptive and unfair form of government. Hizb ut-Tahrir believes in uniting all Muslim countries under a single caliphate, ruled by one elected leader and governed under Shari’a law. They have been accused of promoting racism, anti-Semitic hatred and terrorism.

As Indonesia’s economy prospers, many are left behind. In the capital, Jakarta, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow more extreme – luxury malls and condominiums serve the wealthy while the majority suffer pollution, poverty and the barriers of corruption. Aceh too is changing rapidly. With accusations of human rights abuses in the enforcement of Shari’a law, foreign investment in the province has lagged behind the rest of the country, holding Aceh back from healthy economic growth and throwing it deeper into poverty and despair. In Banda Aceh, punk rock unites and empowers the disenfranchised.

In a course of a year over a series of trips to Banda Aceh, a film crew of three – Maria Bakkalapulo, Niall Macaulay and Wayan Tilik – documented this incredible community in the film Street Punk! Banda Aceh. Screening at festivals this year, we look into the lives of the Aceh punks and find out their stories. The film looks at how the province is changing, and witness its punk community adapt, exist and find their identity in one of the most restricted regions of the country.



» You can follow the team on Twitter: @PunkRockIndo

» or on Facebook at:


To contact the film team directly, please email

For more on Marjaana Jauhola’s time with the Aceh punks, please check out:


Photo essay and story by Marjaana Jauhola and Yudi Bolong featured in Planet 2014: ‘The Punks of the Tsunami Museum: Post-disaster Indonesia’


Story excerpts from MTV Iggy,


This article is part of a Freemuse  INSIGHT  series compiled by Marie Korpe. It was published in June 2015.

Home / News / Indonesia: Punk music and Shari’a law